Friday, May 16, 2008

Digital Billboard Trojan Horse?

What more than madness has possess'd your brains?... Somewhat is sure design'd, by fraud or force: Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse. From The Aeneid, by Virgil

The citizens of Mobile and Prattville have been offered a Trojan Horse. If it is allowed in, then we will end up with communities that look like the Las Vegas Strip, all for some bottled water and a storage pod.

A company called OASIS has come into Mobile and said they’ll put up storage units, stock them with emergency supplies and do it all for free. The catch? Nothing much - just a couple of Jumbotron TV screens so they can sell ads. Just digital billboards at ground level every 400 feet or so. They’ve convinced some city officials, and if it’s not nipped in the bud then these will be infesting our state like fire ants.

OASIS has presented itself as a foundation which works on community preparedness. However, this program has much less philanthropic beginnings.

This is the logo that OASIS used when they were featured by the Lexington (Ky.) Venture Club in early 2007. The company name is an acronym for Outdoor Advertising Storage and Integrated Systems. (That name is not on the logo as it is currently being used.) This is an outdoor advertising company that wanted to break into the market, and came up with a creative way to put billboards into communities. This is what their ad said:
Introducing a new category of outdoor media
OASIS is launching a next generation Outdoor Advertising company that will introduce a new category of outdoor media to meet the burgeoning demand of advertisers for more outdoor media exposure at a time when new typical outdoor locations are becoming harder and harder to attain. Utilizing storage modules as the vehicle to place attractive, state-of-the-art advertising displays onto retail and commercial sites will provide a new category of outdoor advertising that will be in high demand. OASIS has developed and patented a business methodology which will facilitate the placement of these combination storage/advertisement modules onto thousands of retail and commercial locations. To initially rollout the business and gain traction, OASIS has developed a disaster relief Program and partnered with various Emergency Planning agencies whereby OASIS provides free storage space to pre-stage disaster commodities into communities in exchange for the assistance Emergency Planning agencies at each community level.

A press release from January states that Oasis Foundation of America is a philanthropy headquartered in Montgomery. An internet search showed no listing at the nonprofit registry nor at the Internal Revenue Service listing of nonprofits. An internet search on the name “Oasis Foundation of America” shows only the press coverage and blog mentions, and not any organizational information.

An email listing for the foundation has the URL of This goes to a single page with the OFA logo, a phone number and an email address.

Oasis Ad Group is not listed as a corporation with the Alabama Secretary of State.

Oasis Foundation of America is listed in the 2008 membership directory of the National Emergency Management Association, with Joe Montgomery as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, with an address of 1375 S. Broadway, Lexington, KY, 40504. This address is identified on Google Maps as the Crowne Plaza Hotel Lexington. Mr. Montgomery is identified as the owner of the hotel in the Better Business Bureau web listing.

The website for the “S.O.S. Supplies On Site” program includes some interesting information which is different from what is in the press release material.

The program is described as providing two types of modules. “Blue modules” are stocked with bottled water: “(T)the to deploy a sufficient bottled water supply in each community...[for] the first 48 hours.” There is no mention of any other supplies. The silver module is empty. The blue module is 10x10x20, which is two feet wider and higher, and four feet longer, than the biggest PODS storage system. The silver modules are 8x8x20, which are not much smaller.

The only thing that is promised is half the units will have water in them, and that the local EMA has access. The community has to stock the units. OASIS owns the modules.

OASIS decides where they are going to be placed, not based on where is best in an emergency but rather where it is best for advertising. “OASIS will have final authority on the selection of all site placements.”

The digital billboards were deployed at the Mobile Red Cross headquarters, but complaints about glare and driving hazard has reportedly led to them being shut off.

There are already community-based emergency storage facilities. They are called fire stations and police stations. These are buildings with emergency power and staff on hand.

None of the newspaper articles or press releases go into any of the logistics of these units. Will they withstand hurricane-force winds and storm surge? Who has the keys? What happens if the power goes out? How will they be protected from vandalism? What kinds of supplies will they hold, and is this the best way to store them? How do you get access in an emergency, especially if there are floods, trees or power lines between the unit and the EMA personnel?

As far as the signs themselves, we are talking about large signs (the side of the units are at least 8x20 and the front/back is 8x8) at eye level with drivers. Most cities with sign ordinances have banned portable signs with flashing lights because of their distraction, and these are basically the same thing with a flashier picture.

The Mobile City Council is acting on some changes to the zoning ordinance to regulate digital billboards. The current regulations have been worked out over several months, and although they are not perfect (in our opinion digital boards need to be banned) at least they give the citizens some control. Now, OASIS has come in and asked to water down the regulations so that they can put their signs up. Don’t be mistaken - this is not about putting out emergency supplies. It is about being able to put up huge arena-style digital screens right at driver eye level so you can see ads for beer and TV shows.

How to act: ask the Mobile City Council to do two things: vote in favor of the original proposal which regulates digital signs, and vote against the Oasis proposal to allow digital signs at ground level on the sides of portable buildings. Email links are available here. If you prefer, you can email Scenic Alabama and we will forward it, or post a comment.

If you live or work in Mobile, please communicate with the Council. If you live in Mobile, Baldwin, Elmore or Autauga Counties, it would be good for you to contact the Mobile Council as well as your own local officials. Your communities are next. Regardless, if you are a citizen, you should be concerned about this effort to bring blight into your community with no real positive impact in return.

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